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An environmental group wants to make Harvard allow public access to its boathouse docks. The university is pushing back.

The Charles River Watershed Association says the college’s exclusive use of two swaths of waterfront property needs to end.

A view of the Newell boathouse. A nonprofit wants to force Harvard University to allow public access to its historic boathouse docks.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

For more than a century, Harvard has enjoyed a valuable perk along the banks of the Charles River: full private access to the waterfront at its two historic boathouses, where rowers can launch boats without interference from the general public.

But a nonprofit environmental group says it’s time for that special treatment to end.

The Charles River Watershed Association is urging the state to make Harvard go back to the drawing board on its plans to refurbish the sloped wooden decks at the Newell and Weld boathouses — which were built at the turn of the 20th century and are home to the men’s and women’s crew teams — and find a way to let people other than Harvard students and personnel use those sections of riverfront property.


Harvard, meanwhile, wants to keep its private swath of the Charles, and is offering to help fund a public dock elsewhere at the river’s edge in exchange.

At the crux of the argument from the watershed association is a state law called the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act, or Chapter 91, which requires that the waterfront be accessible to the public for walking, fishing, and other activities, and “that private uses of tidelands and waterways serve a proper public purpose.”

Harvard will require approval from the Department of Environmental Protection of a Chapter 91 license to proceed with its plans to rehab its docks, a project that is part of a major renovation of the boathouses, already underway.

A view of the Weld boathouse under reconstruction.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“Our request is very straightforward. We ask that the DEP require that Harvard provide access to the riverfront on each of these sites,” Jen Ryan, CRWA deputy director for advocacy, said at a hearing Thursday, adding that doing so is “reasonable and consistent with the law.”

The association has not advocated for specific changes to Harvard’s plans at its buildings, which call for reconstructing their large, sloped decks that protrude into the river. But the group and others said the approval process is an opportunity for the state to bring Harvard into compliance with the law, and want officials to withhold a license until the college integrates public access.


At the hearing, representatives from Harvard said the university believes its arrangement with the state is necessary to restrict public access to the docks, which are only accessible via the private boathouses, in order to safeguard its collection of valuable boating equipment and keep people from entering student locker rooms and bathrooms housed there.

What’s more, they said that both Harvard and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the public land, considered finding alternative ways for the public to access the water on that property, but decided against it due to the severe slope of the shore, the abundance of vegetation nearby, and the close quarters with the Anderson Memorial Bridge.

“After reviewing these concepts, the two organizations realize that the shoreline at these sites is not really conducive to pedestrian access,” Stephanie Kruel, a representative of the design firm VHB, which is working with Harvard, said at the hearing.

“The University’s renewal of the Weld and Newell Boathouses enables restoration, repairs, safety and accessibility upgrades to facilities that have reached the end of their useful life, and improves the adjacent Charles River landscape,” a Harvard spokesperson said in a statement.


A rower put away a single scull at the Newell boathouse. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Instead, Harvard has offered to go a different route: In conversations with DCR officials, Harvard proposed helping to pay for a public dock about a mile away from the Newell Boathouse at Christian Herter Park. The dock, which was outlined in an earlier DCR master planning process, would be open to the public as well as to area high school rowers. The representatives did not say how much money Harvard would contribute to the project, or for how long.

To some, that sounds like a fair deal.

“I can tell you that this high school boathouse is an asset that’s much needed along the river,” said Tom Pounds, who identified himself at Thursday’s hearing as a member of the local rowing community. “I think this would be a terrific outcome for the public and for the community.”

But the CRWA’s view is that Harvard should not be allowed to have exclusive use of its swath of riverbed, and dismissed its concerns about letting the general public get too close to its facilities.

“It can be done,” Ryan said in an interview. She pointed as an example to the boathouse run by the nonprofit club Community Rowing in Brighton, which was built to both allow its private rowing operations and accommodate visitors who simply want to stroll along the water.

“That is a building that gets locked and closed to protect their boats, but they have found a way to do it where there is also complete public access, so you can walk along the river or you can walk down to the dock if you want,” she said.


Members of the public are invited to submit written comments online through Nov 8, after which the DEP will make a decision about the license.

Spencer Buell can be reached at Follow him @SpencerBuell.